“If you have the time, do visit the Penans and write fairly about them… “

By A. Kathirasen (NST)

MY heart goes out to the Penans.

Last month, I read that a group of Penans was starving. I was shocked. After all, this is Malaysia with the twin towers and beautiful Putrajaya and a prospering middle class.

I felt relieved when Ulu Rejang member of parliament Datuk Billy Abit Joo denied that anyone was starving.

Then, in the same New Straits Times report, he was quoted as saying the Penans at Long Tanyit and Long Kajang had had a poor rice harvest because the crop was destroyed by insects and monkeys.

He said there had always been a shortage of food because of logging activities, which were destroying the food source of the Penans.

Later, I read about a group of people, including from Peninsular Malaysia, making the arduous journey to the Kapit Division to deliver more than 10 tonnes of food to about 1,500 Penans.

The headman of Long Tanyit, Salu Ugat, was quoted as saying they were facing a serious food shortage.

This week, I read that allegations of Penan women and girls being raped and sexually abused by timber company workers were true.

A task force established by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry last year has ascertained that at least eight girls and women had been raped and molested in the Baram district.

The task force's 111-page report said schoolgirls were very vulnerable to sexual abuse because they depended on timber vehicles to transport them to and from school. Otherwise, they would have to walk for hours or not go to school.

On Friday, the head of the Criminal Investigations Department in Sarawak, Senior Assistant Commissioner 2 Huzir Mohamed was quoted as saying:

"We need the names of specific victims, where they can be found, more accurate information on the dates and places of the incidents and descriptions of the people who had committed these (sexual crimes)…. The ministry must furnish us with more details."

Hmm. I always thought it was the job of the police to get such details. The report certainly raises questions about police investigations into the rape allegations.

But, more than that, it is about the attitude of Sarawak leaders towards their people.

When the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) revealed the allegations on Sept 15 last year, Deputy Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Alfred Jabu was quoted as saying, on Sept 25, that the claim was baseless.

"Show proof," he cried. "Tell us which Penan settlement. I have not heard of such complaints from the Penan community leaders in my many visits to Ulu Baram."

Hmmm. Maybe Jabu needs to make more visits.

He also dismissed the BMF as a "bunch of people who are nothing in their own country but like to sensationalise events elsewhere".

On Friday, he said he believed the Penans were manipulated by Western non-governmental organisations into telling lies to the task force.

Hmmmm. I pity Jabu. But then, this is the malaise of many in authority. The first reaction to any negative news is to reject it, or to ascribe an evil intention.

The task force's report also pointed out the problems faced by the Penans, such as a lack of access to healthcare and education.

It added: "All these issues are closely related to imbalanced development. The lack of infrastructure such as roads and public transport make it difficult for the Penan to communicate with the outside world, including government agencies."

Therein lies the problem. If schoolgirls have to depend on timber lorry drivers to get to school, incidences of sexual abuse will continue.

And it is not just the Penans who are out in the cold. There are also other tribes and groups, such as the Sabans, most of whom still don't have any documentation to even show they are Malaysians.

Perhaps politicians should make more frequent trips into the interior areas; at the very least, they will get more vitamin D.

Sarawak is a rich state. Surely its politicians can accelerate the distribution of the fruits of development to a wider populace; surely, it's time to ensure no child has to walk for seven hours to get to school; surely it's time to ensure no sick person has to travel hundreds of kilometres — on foot and in timber company vehicles — to get treatment.

If logging activities are causing misery to their people, then Sarawak politicians have an obligation to attend to them; if loss of native customary land is the problem, then it is incumbent upon the leaders to resolve the issue. People should come first, not profits.

And they can start with the Penans. Don't forget, they are Malaysian citizens, too. The Sarawak government must show it has a heart.